We’re slightly more than halfway through the NBA season and that means it’s a perfect time to offer some midseason evaluations. ClipperBlog will be running “Clipper Midterms” throughout the week, one piece a day from Monday through Friday. Here is part two from Fred Katz.
Basketball is a team game at its foundation. Players like LeBron or Durant can dominate in their own ways, take over as primary options and lead teammates to titles, but in its purest form, it is ultimately a team game.
Some guys play well together. Some don’t. How many times have we seen two or three stars merge to create a “superteam” only to find later that it’s not working out? How often to we hear about player gripes for more minutes or more shots?
Some lineups just play better together. Call it chemistry. Call it telepathy. Jordan Heimer might call it intangibles. But it’s a real thing.
One of the great advantages of technology in sports is learning information you’d have no way of knowing 15 years ago. It’s intuitive that some lineups might play better together than others. That is a concept we’ve accepted as true ever since James Naismith was playing around with a peach basket. But now we have evidence to back that up. We have a way to evaluate actual lineups to see how they perform together. (I know, it’s very exciting.)
The Clippers have about seven to 10 lineups that they use regularly, but some are more important than others. Here is an evaluation of their most essential ones:
Offensive rating: 109.1
Defensive rating: 102.6
Net rating: 6.5
The starting lineup usually serves up a killer half-court offense. Surely, there are takeaways – Chris Paul is leading the league in steals for the fifth time in six seasons – but the starters aren’t running the fast break as much as the all-reserves line.
Regardless of what the Clippers’ record is without Chris Paul, this lineup is quite dependent on him. Willie Green depends on him to get him shots in the corner, from which he shoots 49 percent. Green also leads the league in three-point shooting from the right corner, where he is nailing 57 percent of his shots, per Kirk Goldsberry.
This lineup is about starting; not necessarily starting strong, but starting the right way. Isn’t that what Paul-led teams are all about? It’s process, not results. Early in the year, the all-starters lineup often went straight to Jordan right out of the gate. The strategy wasn’t about getting DeAndre hot as much as it was about getting him involved.
ClipperBlog’s D.J. Foster has The Coffee Cup Theory (we’re absolutely proper-nouning that term right now. We’re also totally verbing “proper noun”.) That theory basically says that Jordan needs a few big-time plays to get going. He needs his monstrous dunk in transition to maintain ferocious defense. He needs a right-handed hook shot so that he can stay engaged on the other end of the floor.
Jordan’s defense has vastly improved this year. Don’t just look at the blocks, though. They don’t tell the whole story. Check out how he’s improved his low-post defense. Offensive players that he guards in the post are shooting only 40.6 percent against him. See how he’s improved his help defense and notice how much more he communicates with his teammates on the defensive end. He’s yapping the whole time.
If getting Jordan the ball is about keeping him engaged, isn’t it possible that the increase in touches is at the very least helping? Last year, he attempted only 33 shots on post moves all season. That used a mere 7.9 percent of his possessions. That’s nothing for a center. Nothing. But this season is a completely different story. Jordan has already attempted 89 field goals in the post, good for 29.4 percent of his possessions.
Now, the starting unit tends to feed Griffin to start. Or go to Willie Green or Caron Butler for a couple early threes. Caron, after all, does love the odd-numbered quarters. But this lineup getting Jordan the ball early has certainly done wonders.
Offensive rating: 100.6
Defensive rating: 89.3
Net rating: 11.3
In some ways, the Clippers almost play like a hockey team instead of a basketball team. While most basketball teams stagger starters and bench players, giving a mix of different sorts of lineups throughout a game, Vinny Del Negro goes the Darryl Sutter route and plays lines.
I’ll start with my starters and then go straight to my bench.
The Clips’ all-bench lineup is easily their second-most used lineup – behind the all-starters lineup. It has logged 255 minutes, more than twice as many minutes as the Clippers’ third-most used lineup has compiled.
It’s like Grinnell, except no one is scoring 138 points – especially not the Clippers’ opposition.
The all-bench lineup, or as some have taken to calling it #ATribeCalledBench, might be the Clips’ best defensive five-man unit. That 89.3 defensive efficiency is the best of any Clippers’ five-man lineup that’s logged more than 50 minutes. In fact, no other 200-plus minute lineup in the league has a better defensive efficiency than that of #ATribeCalledBench.
That stifling defense is how this lineup often creates its offense. The Clippers’ bench – especially with Grant Hill in the mix – is all about getting out in transition, but we already knew that. They score on live-ball turnovers and have elite transition players to finish at the rim.
This lineup isn’t just getting steals (11.7 steals per 48 minutes); it’s also blocking shots at a weirdly high rate. DeAndre Jordan is pretty clearly the Clippers’ best individual shot blocker, but with him off the floor, the Clips just keep swatting. At least #ATribeCalledBench does. The all-bench lineup is averaging 11.8 blocks per 48 minutes, making it easily the best shot-blocking lineup of any Clips lineup that has played meaningful minutes together.
Bledsoe is a bull. Crawford is bendy, athletic, and can sink tougher shots than anyone else in the league. Plus, he can PUJIT with the best of them (maybe he can’t PUJIT with Luke Ridnour, but everyone else is fair game). Barnes, meanwhile, has raised his field goal percentage in transition about 25 points since last season and is now one of the most efficient fast-break players in the NBA. And with Lamar Odom, you have one of the game’s best outlet passers. It’s a lineup made to run. And oh, boy, do they run.
The assist numbers are skewed because of Crawford’s rightful tendency to fall in love with isolation ball throughout the game, but about a quarter of this lineup’s points come off turnovers. That’s not a coincidence. And it should stay like that for the remainder of the season.
Offensive rating: 112.3
Defensive rating: 97.5
Net rating: 14.8
When it comes to crunch time, Vinny Del Negro will usually go to this lineup, a mix of defense and half-court offense.
Crawford takes Green’s spot to give the Clippers another scorer on the floor who can create his own shot. Green is a spot-up shooter and that’s about it, used most-likely as a place holder until Chauncey Billups returns – if Billups does, in fact, come back.
Barnes, probably the best wing defender on the team, takes over for Butler for defensive reasons over all else.
And Odom jumps in for Jordan. We’ll get to that in a bit.
This is the lineup that Chris Paul usually uses to take over games late. The Let Chris Paul Do Things Other People Can’t Do Offense tends to rear its head late in close games that the Clippers are trying to hold onto. Cue: Fourth-Quarter Chris Paul, a completely different person from First-Three-Quarters Chris Paul.
Paul goes into isolation sets way more often in the fourth. His 16.5 field goal attempts per 36 minutes in the fourth are more than in any other quarter. His 4.7 three-point attempts per 36 in the final period also mark a quarter-high for him. Meanwhile, he gets to the line at an absurd rate, 12.4 times per 36 minutes, averaging about eight more free throw attempts per 36 minutes than in any other quarter he plays.
The Clippers’ late-game, isolation offense with this lineup has spurred plenty of criticism, but don’t forget how dominant Paul and Crawford can be in those sets.
Paul is shooting 40.3 percent from the field when working in isolation and is hitting 37.8 percent of his threes in isos. His 0.95 points per possession in isolation ranks him as the 20th most efficient iso player in the NBA.
Then there’s Crawford, a man who loves isolation so much that he must’ve only lived in single dorms at Michigan. Jamal ranks as the 30th most efficient isolation player in the league, according to points per possession. Meanwhile, more than a quarter of his offensive possessions actually come in isolation.
If you have two players that good in a particular set, you almost have to run it, don’t you? Isn’t the choice somewhat made for you?
Either way, this is the lineup Vinny Del Negro seems to be sticking with to close games. And with that will come plenty of hero ball.
THE SHOULD-BE CLOSERS
Offensive rating: 122.2
Defensive rating: 90.3
Net rating: 31.9
Look at the difference DeAndre Jordan might make on the floor. Do you see how definitive that piece of information could be if it were undeniably true? (Which isn’t the case.)
This lineup is exactly the same as the Closers, save one change to the recipe:
Subtract one Lamar Odom. Add one DeAndre Jordan.
To Del Negro’s credit, he does run out this lineup to close games on occasion. Usually, we’ll see Odom down the stretch. Often, we won’t even see Jordan play fourth-quarter minutes. But sometimes, in certain situations that call for it, DeAndre will be out there to close games.
Going against a smaller team with athletic bigs, Jordan has often found himself as one of the closers. And when he does, this team seems to demolish the competition. I mean, really destroy its opponent.
That totally ridiculous net rating of 31.9 is exactly as absurd as it looks. And this isn’t a case of irrationally small sample size. The Should-Be Closers have logged 94 minutes of floor time together, more than enough time to legitimize the lineup data. Meanwhile, of all NBA lineups that have played at least 65 minutes, the Should-Be Closers’ 31.9 net rating leads everyone. Everyone. The whole league.
Basically, for the amount of time this lineup has played, it may be the most dominant five-man lineup in the NBA. But we can’t be completely sure because it doesn’t often close.
It’s complete and utter dominance on both ends of the floor with this group. It’s a 57 percent effective field goal percentage. It’s a 63 percent true shooting percentage. It’s Griffin and Jordan helping the team pull down 55.8 percent of available rebounds, an elite figure.
Now, these numbers could be skewed. Del Negro tends to play this group only against lineups that he feels it has a distinct advantage against. That could explain the bloated offensive efficiency and the stingy defense. But those numbers are huge – almost unrealistically enormous – and it seems like the Should-Be Closers, with the way they play together, have to be given a chance to consistently finish games.
THE PAUL-LESS STARTERS
Offensive rating: 111.8
Defensive rating: 102.2
Net rating: 9.6
Unfortunately, this lineup has become pertinent with Chris Paul missing seven of the past nine games and counting. This group has only played together in the seven games without Paul, but has already jumped to the Clippers’ sixth most used lineup.
Remove the best point guard in the league, a slow-working, methodical player, who loves to dissect defenses in the half court, and insert the Energizer Bunny. You’d think that logic might call for a faster-paced game. You’d definitely think that. At least I would.
But nope, untrue.
The Paul-less Starters are actually playing at a slower pace than the Paul-ful starters – even with Bledsoe running the show – averaging about four fewer possessions per 48 minutes. The main reason for that has to be the Clippers’ new, first-quarter offense.
Even though Bledsoe is at the one, the offense isn’t running through him out of the gate. The Clips’ newest facilitator is a forward by the name of Blake Griffin.
Nope. Untrue, again.
Griffin has mended himself into one of the best facilitating forwards in the league. He could always pass, but not quite like this. At this point, upper-echelon offenses can run their schemes through Griffin and succeed at an impressively high rate.
It’s not just about Griffin averaging 5.9 assists per game when Paul doesn’t play. It’s almost like he has learned from Paul’s game strategy. Blake has clearly made a concerted effort to become an aggressive, first-quarter passer. In fact, Griffin’s 22.2 percent first-quarter assist rate is higher than any other quarter’s.
Griffin creating in the post is basically how this offense has worked. Without garnering as many steals as the all-bench lineup, Bledsoe doesn’t have as many opportunities to get out and run. But Griffin has made up for that. And not by dunking.
THE PAUL-LESS/BLEDSOE-LESS BENCH
Offensive rating: 103.6
Defensive rating: 93.5
Net rating: 10.1
Honest question: Does starting unit miss CP3 more than second unit misses Bledsoe?
— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) January 27, 2013
Does the bench unit really miss Bledsoe more than the starters miss Paul?
It’s a completely different dynamic sans Bledsoe. Aside from the fact that the Clips don’t have a true point guard on the offensive end, that defensive stopper is gone. Before, when the Clippers went from Paul to Bledsoe, there was a drop-off on the offensive end, but the defense remained relatively stagnant. The Clippers have been shutting down point guards with what has probably been the best point-guard defense in the NBA all season, but now that aspect of their team is gone.
Here, subtract Eric Bledsoe. Add Jamal Crawford.
It has to work out like this. Remember, this is the makeup of a hockey team in a lot of ways. The Paul-less/Bledsoe-less Bench is going to get loads of minutes. In the absence of Paul, it is playing 8.1 minutes per game and that trend will surely continue.
Crawford has played point guard before and just about everyone who’s ever seen him play is fully aware that he has the handle to do it on a consistent basis, but what about the other aspects of the point guard position? One of the reasons Crawford may have struggled as much as he did in Portland last season is that he was playing out of position. With Ray Felton massively disappointing in his only season as a Trail Blazer, Crawford had to step up and play the point. He proceeded to post some of the worst numbers of his career.
Because Crawford simply isn’t used to running the point, Odom and Grant Hill often take over ball-handling and facilitating duties in this lineup. But a lineup that has an isolation shooting guard and two forwards running a point-guard-by-committee may not always thrive. That can be reflected in the 19.4 turnovers per 48 minutes.
So maybe Dan Woike has a point. Maybe the second unit does, in fact, miss Bledsoe more than the first unit misses Paul. Surely, the Clippers hope the sample size doesn’t actually get big enough to realize the true answer.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and MySynergySports.com.
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